ORLANDO, Fla. â€” The Pro Bowl has long been more about showmanship than competition. Clearly, that memo missed Lorenzo Alexander.
The Buffalo Bills linebacker could have just sat on a late interception for the win, but instead opted to return the ball 20 yards and then lateralled it to Aqib Talib, who came within 13 yards of the end zone in the AFC’s 20-13 win over the NFC in the NFL’s all-star game Sunday night.
“I was serious about that last drive,” Alexander said. “You’re playing fast, playing hard, having a good time, but we wanted to win. We took it very serious.”
That much was obviously on the final drive when Alexander, selected the game’s defensive MVP, got tight end Jimmy Graham on a hard hit over the middle as the NFC drove the ball down field for what could have been the rallying game-winning drive. A couple of plays later, the ball went off Graham’s hands and right to Alexander, sealing the game.
But even on that play, the increased competitive spirit was obvious when quarterback Kirk Cousins stuck with the play after throwing the interception and knocked the ball out of Talib’s hands on a jarring hit to save the touchdown.
While many of the 60,834 had already left Camping World Stadium , those who stuck around saw a thrilling end.
“It was fun and it was competitive,” Alexander said. “It got a little chippy there late in the game, but that’s part of it when you have competitive people.”
In the recent past, the Pro Bowl hadn’t produced a competitive environment. But perhaps the return of the traditional AFC vs. NFC matchup combined with playing in front a larger crowd than when the game was played in Hawaii, amped up the intensity just a bit.
The winners took home $61,000, while the NFC team members settled for $30,000.
“This game was definitely more competitive than last time I played in it. I can say that,” Talib said. “Guys played a lot harder this year.”
The Pro Bowl had been played the last three years with a format in which teams were drafted among the players by designated captains.
In a first half defined by big plays and key interceptions, the AFC was able to come up with one more play to take a 14-7 lead into halftime and a 20-7 edge early in the fourth quarter.
The NFC should have had 17 points in the first half, but a decision to not a kick a chip-shot field goal and an interception in the end zone denied the squad of points during the first two quarters.
Andy Dalton’s 23-yard touchdown pass to Kansas City tight end Travis Kelce, named the game’s offensive MVP with three catches for 36 yards, put the AFC ahead 14-7 with 1:40 remaining in the second quarter. The touchdown was set up by a 36-yard punt return by the Chiefs’ Tyreek Hill to the NFC 38.
“I thought the level of play was really good. It was really competitive,” said Dalton, the Cincinnati quarterback who completed 10 of 12 passes for 100 yards and one touchdown. “It came down right to the end. You can’t ask for much more than that in any football game.”
It was a relatively low-scoring game that was defined by big defensive stops, which included a goal-line stand when Zach Brown stuffed Dallas rookie running back Ezekiel Elliott at the 1-yard line in the first quarter.
The play seemed to set the tone as both
“We were having fun, but we were definitely out there competing, definitely playing to win,” said Cousins, who led the NFC on the two fourth-quarter drives that ended with field goals but could not get the ball into the end zone. “Everybody was giving their all on both sides of the ball at the end. It made for an exciting finish.”
New Orleans’ Drew Brees completed 10 of 19 passes for 112 yards and one touchdown to Seattle’s Doug Baldwin to lead the NFC. Kansas City’s Alex Smith, the starter for the AFC, completed six of eight passes for 74 yards, including a 26-yard TD toss to Tennessee’s Delanie Walker early in the second quarter .
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Terrance Harris, The Associated Press